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SPORTS EXTRA: U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Skating's Odd Couple

Zimmerman, Ina Grew Up Worlds Apart but Have Grown Together on the Ice

January 07, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's a little bit country, a lanky, slow-talking Alabama native who craves barbecue, iced tea and leisurely conversations.

She's a little bit city, a sophisticated, blunt-speaking New Yorker who wants to get places five minutes ago.

U.S. pair figure skating champions John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina are, to say the least, an unlikely match. "You think?" Ina said, feigning a look of surprise.

They got together three years ago because of their skating pedigrees. Both had done well with other partners--Ina with Jason Dungjen and Zimmerman with Stephanie Stiegler--and they knew the ropes, but they didn't know each other.

Over time, they ceased being strangers who happened to share the ice and learned their differences mattered less than their shared Olympic dream. They will take a major step toward realizing that dream Wednesday at Staples Center, when they perform their short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"About as different as New York City and Alabama gets, that's how different our skating was," said Ina, who won two U.S. titles with Dungjen and finished fourth with him at the Nagano Olympics but needed a new partner when he turned pro.

"We were two totally different people trying to skate together, and yet you saw on paper, national medalist, national medalist, world team medalist, world team medalist. It was great.

"It's taken three years to actually get to the point where we can say we're a real couple, and you can see that."

Their 1998 debut at Fort Lauderdale wasn't encouraging. The audience included an array of U.S. figure skating officials scouting the new duo, and a nervous Zimmerman forgot what came after their spins.

"I'm counting and swearing we're supposed to go one way down the ice and we were supposed to be go the other way, apparently," he said. "Kyoko was going the opposite way. I actually turned around and had to run back. It was the longest run, with the spotlights and our little outfits and makeup. It was humbling."

Ina was surprised to see she was skating solo.

"He was coming up behind me," she said, "and of course when I turn around and he's not there, it's 'OK, where did he go?' "

Their chagrin didn't last long. They won medals at the Trophee Lalique and Cup of Russia, assuring them they were on the right track. They finished ninth in their first world championships together, 1999, and seventh in 2000.

Finishing seventh again at last year's world competition, though, was a shock. Although they were working with one of the top pairs coaches in the world, Russian Tamara Moskvina, and performing creative lifts, the judges' marks told them they needed to hone their technique and unison.

"It was like a slap in the face," said Ina, who was born in Japan but was reared in New York and began skating at Rockefeller Center when she was 4. "It was, 'You guys have so much potential, but you're not showing it. You're taking the Alabama route. The I'll get to it in February way,' and that wasn't working. Even John got to New York [last summer] and said we're going to have to do something."

That urgency was new for an easygoing guy who learned to skate in a shopping mall rink in Montgomery, Ala., and stayed with it because he got to meet cute girls.

"I've been around New York City enough to understand the people and their mentality," he said. "You've got to fight. You've got to be tough as nails. You're going to get stepped on, walked on and forgotten if you don't step it up and show what we've been working so hard for. We've worked too hard to let it slip by."

Setting aside time for lunch every Tuesday near their training base in Hackensack, N.J., gave them a forum to air grievances, analyze their practices and set goals. From those sessions came the idea to use positive reinforcement to motivate each other to intensify their training. They're not romantically involved, but they cemented a friendship and respect.

"We always worked twice as hard as we thought we should have," Zimmerman said. "The confidence is there more now this year."

That has been evident in their increasingly sure, emotive performances. They won silver medals at each of their three Grand Prix events this season and finished fourth at the Grand Prix Final despite being the only duo among the six who hadn't previously won a medal at the world championships.

"For us that's such a great confidence booster," Ina said. "We sort of wonder if we had only dedicated ourselves this much last year or the year before, where would we be today? You always wonder. We probably weren't ready last year to do what we're doing this year. Two years ago there was no way we could do what we're doing today."

Ending the season on a strong note would provide satisfying closure to a season that began for them with the horror of watching from afar as the second World Trade Center tower collapsed.

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